A group of children all meet and decide to play together. One kid takes it upon himself to assign everyone roles, and the other kids agree to it—Tim’s the best at coming up with interesting stories. So one little boy becomes a knight, and a little girl the princess, and another boy a dragon; Tim watched a fantasy movie a few weeks ago, and the ideas are in his head when he makes up his story. They have a good time.
One day, the little girl shows up with a super rad toy mecha. Everyone is very admiring of it, and they get back to playing pretend. At some point, Tim declares that the princess has to give the hero (him) her Mega Holy Ultra Robot so that he can defeat the bad guy. It’s the only thing with enough power. He gets to play with the robot for the rest of the day.
Hypotheticals are something of a cheap trick, I know—they inevitable reduce complicated situations to brief sketches that fail to fully take complex situations into account—but in this case, I thought it might help illuminate an issue that many find difficult to pin down. In spite of the free and frequent use of the word “meta” in internet discourse (usually for fourth-wall breaks or format experimentation), meta-criticism as it relates to narrative is often excluded from common understanding.
And just so we’re not speaking entirely in abstract terms, let’s also talk about a perfectly imperfect series that’s been dear to my heart this season: Land of the Lustrous.
The Influence of Art on the Artist
Let’s take that hypothetical. Tim, our stand-in writer-artist-director, is influenced by multiple elements. First, the movie that he watched; all of us are influenced by art that speaks to us, and that includes those who are themselves creators. “Tim” saw something that he thought was cool, and wanted to share it…and because he doesn’t necessarily have the vocabulary to say “this is the part of this thing that spoke to me,” he reproduces all of it. Including the parts that affect other people.
Tim thinks dragons and knights and saving people are all cool things. So naturally someone has to be saved, and in movies, that’s princesses. Which means the only girl has to be the one who gets saved. Why? Because that’s how it was in the movie. He isn’t even necessarily thinking “girls are gross, or not as good as boys.” He’s repeating what he saw, because it “feels right.” And so, someone else learns that boys are rescuers and girls are waiting to be saved, simply because they didn’t think about it.
Stereotypes are frequently passed on out of ignorance, but they come from real thoughts and affect real people. Tim didn’t think he was hurting any girls, but he watched a movie that was made by someone who could only imagine a girl getting rescued. And that person saw another movie, and heard advertisements, and read books, that heard girls were weaker; and because stories teach us how to treat one another, on some level they came to assume that there are certain things it isn’t “natural” for a girl (or a person of color, or a queer or disabled person) to be able to do. These things get baked into society, much of it in the way we tell stories—stories, which help us process the world and learn to understand other people.
Unconscious Cultural Bias
Land of the Lustrous is a show about genderless rock people. Agender and nonbinary folk, at least as I’ve observed, have had somewhat complicated feelings about the show. On the one hand, it is truly exciting to see so many sympathetic, well-developed characters referred to with “they/them” pronouns. On the other, the characters are still sentient rocks, and there’s a long tradition of artists only being able to imagine genderless characters as somehow inhuman (robots, aliens, etc).
This is one of those things that is, in all likelihood, not a conscious statement. Rather, media has spent so long hammering the drum of gender as an intrinsic, binary divide—the battle of the sexes! men are from Mars! women be shopping!—that an overtly alien creature was the only way that was seen as a “natural” place to explore what other gender expressions might be like. Midcentury science fiction and gender play go hand in hand. Gender was so apparently intrinsic that to have it was to be human. And those attitudes carry forward; it keeps nonbinary characters from appearing, and means that the likelihood of them being somehow “unnatural” is higher when they do appear.
There is likewise the trouble that all the characters have exactly the same body type: thin, with prominent hips and androgynous features. The influence of this is twofold: first, that any kind of diversity of body type for feminine characters, whether female or femme-coded, is seen as unappealing; and like any other visual medium, anime has a strong attachment to visual appeal. Sometimes this manifests as characters making fun of or showing disgust toward fat people; and sometimes, as here, it simply means that creators simply cannot conceive of including an attractive character model who isn’t rail thin.
This is doubly a problem for the nonbinary community, where frequently the acceptable aesthetic is to be thin, tall, white, and dressed in suits or otherwise masculine coding. Or, as it is sometimes known, the Tilda Swinton problem. For those who don’t fit into that very narrowly defined image, even that infinitesimally small amount of visibility is denied to them. Because their body type isn’t recognized as what androgyny “should” look like, they are far more likely to be misgendered not just by their bodies but their clothing and the sound of their voice. The narrow presentation we see in media becomes a real-world effect, particularly when works that represent those voices are already few and far between.
But There’s a Story Reason!
Finally, we have the most slippery element of all: the in-story justification. These are cases where a story might include an exclusionary or harmful story element like the ones we just discussed, but will also have that element be part of the plot. Back to our hypothetical for a minute. Tim lays out a story where he NEEDS to hold onto that really super cool robot in order to save the day….but he’s the one making up the story. Because he wanted the toy, he wrote a story that would include some reason for him to get it. It wasn’t the only possible story that could be told; and there’s a version of the same story they could’ve played where the girl who owned the toy used it to save the world instead. The question to be asked is: why was this choice made, and who benefits from it?
Those are easy connections to draw when talking about a bunch of kids, but the discussion gets muddied when things turn to published artists. There’s more than a little mystique around the cultural idea of The Artiste, hunched over their desk and delivering divinely inspired work which cannot be analyzed but only admired. That element of awe can be tough to shake for people who aren’t creators or professional critics or academics themselves. They might not be sure how to start, or how to reconcile troubling elements of a thing they otherwise like.
Almost as important is the fact that the most easily consumable part of internet criticism is the plot hole. Outlets like Cinema Sins train viewers to point out issues in plot logic, flubs, or other technical inconsistencies—things anyone can see if they’re paying close enough attention. It’s a form of deductive reasoning; you take only the information given, and from that information extrapolate a conclusion. This frame of mind means, on the flip side, that if a story is internally consistent a viewer is unlikely to question it on a deeper level.
But meta-critique requires inductive reasoning. Rather than taking the narrative at face value, you must also incorporate other things: how stories are put together; critical theory like feminism, Marxism, race theory and queer theory; trends in a genre or medium in the past, and sociological trends. Taking some or all of those, your job becomes putting stories into a context of where they came from and how they’re received by audiences. It’s tough, it requires a lot of practice and reading, and it’s not as immediately satisfying as saying “the eyepatch was on the other side in the last shot” and feeling briefly superior to the filmmaker.
About Those Skinny Rocks
Take the issue of homogenous thin body types I mentioned with Land of the Lustrous. There are, in fact, theoretical narrative reasons for it. The gems are all standardized because they’re artificial, with each body being identical from the neck down—this is part of what makes the easily modular should they break, since all arms and legs are the same length. The homogeneity of body is part of the collectivism in the gems’ community, and this is worked into how the story is told, and it’s thought out more than many examples of story explainers.
And yet, this still doesn’t make it immune to criticism. Elements of the story such as body modification and shared memories would have still worked if the gems were of differing sizes and shapes. There’s even room within the series’ own definition of how gems work: they are all of different hardness values, which impacts how easily they break. It would’ve been no stretch to likewise incorporate the fact that gemstones grow in different formations in nature. While slightly different, it would’ve still served the series’ themes of a communal body (with shards and grafts being shared among gems), the body as a deciding factor in how society determines a use for you (which height and weight are certainly part of), and frustration with seemingly inescapable assigned bodies beyond fighting capacity (one of the most overtly trans undercurrents of the series).
All of this can be said alongside the fact that Land of the Lustrous is a beautiful story about bodies, self, community, love, and change. I can say that I love it while also acknowledging the ways in which it might be better—and to do so denigrates neither the good parts of the story nor my love of it. Only a child would think of nuanced critique as some kind of loathsome silver bullet.
Stories are flexible things, possible to love even when recognizing the ways in which they’re flawed. If a story is truly excellent, it’s preposterous to think that it would somehow be diminished by questioning and critiquing the harmful ideas it might (wittingly or no) perpetuate. If those harmful, exclusionary elements of a story are intrinsic to what makes a story beloved and shouldn’t be touched, is it really worth celebrating?